Barth, Calvin, and a Sunday Morning

Karl Barth once pointed out the tendency for biblical commentaries to be “no commentary at all, but merely the first step towards a commentary.” Barth did go on to highlight the type of commentary he was talking about. He claimed that John Calvin’s Romans was “a real commentary.” Of it, he said “how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to rethink the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which seperate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the child of the sixteenth century hears.”

We do not wish to minimize this counsel. If this is sound advice for commentaries, how much more for sermons. When we stand in front of God’s people, we are expected to do more than simply share our exegesis. Or worse, I fear sometimes we have stood before the assembly and simply shared the exegesis of another. May we energetically “rethink” and “wrestle” the text in ways that it’s voice can be heard clearly in our century.

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Preaching Politics and the Book of Daniel

I am knee deep in a Doctor of Ministry program and am at the beginning stages of a dissertation. It is my intention to examine preaching in the church as well as mainstream political rhetoric in order to discover how Christians decide on political ideology. If you would be willing to help when the time comes for research, please let me know. A warning, I will be soliciting some of you for help whether you volunteer or not.

Biblical foundations will play a significant part in the research. Interestingly, we are presently reading Daniel 1-6 together on Wednesday evenings. We are asking questions of the text and examining what the text might suggest for a 21st century church. It is unavoidable to read Daniel without recognizing political implications. So, here in the middle of our reading I am offering the following implications for preaching the book of Daniel. Please feel free to affirm or challenge any of them, I will be very grateful.

  • The state may attempt to sound like the voice of God – but it is not.
  • To align with the state is never the will of God.
  • It is not the intention of the state to encourage Christian discipleship.
  • Preaching includes the role of calling forth a movement of resistance.
  • We can preach an allegiance to God without speaking violently toward the state.
  • Our message includes an invitation for representatives of the state to join us.
  • We preach that God is and has always been a God who delivers, rescues, and saves… “but even if He does not…” we are not going to serve or worship the gods of the state.

The Princeton Scripture Project and a Resulting Sermon

From 1998-2002, fifteen pastors and scholars participated in what has come to be known as the Princeton Scripture Project. Their intention was to explore how to read the Bible in an age we have come to know as postmodernity. Their reflections are published in The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. It is a thoughtful work that gives us nine theses that the contributors agreed on. These are;

  • Thesis One: Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
  • Thesis Two: Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
  • Thesis Three: Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
  • Thesis Four: Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
  • Thesis Five: The four canonical gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
  • Thesis Six: Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action — the church.
  • Thesis seven: The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
  • Thesis eight: Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
  • Thesis nine: We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

Richard Hays is coeditor of The Art of Reading Scripture. We are fortunate that he included a sermon “Who is the God Who Will Deliver.” The texts are Daniel 3.16-29 and Hebrews 11.32-12.2. Hays introduces Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as superheroes. He describes the escape of the fiery furnace like a modern action movie. I enjoy this introduction yet agree that marveling too much in the special effects will cause us to miss the story.

Hays cannot assume listeners have any biblical literacy. So he retells the story of Daniel as a story of political resistance. He talks about Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and the three who refused to bow down. Then he emphasizes the king’s question, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” I enjoy his commentary. It is one thing to talk about how this God rescued you in Egypt, “but this is the real world now.” Nebuchadnezzar was certain he held the power. But God saved them and Nebuchadnezzar changes his tune.

Hays is right to highlight the three Hebrews trusted God without knowing how the story would turn out. This is important because not all resistance stories have a happy ending. This is important because our resistance may get us thrown into the fire as well. This is important because we must trust our future to God.

He creatively introduces the fourth figure in the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar says “the fourth has the appearance of a god.” Hays gets my attention as he reports that only three men come out. The fourth figure does not follow but remains in the furnace of suffering. Hays turns to the Hebrews text where there is a great cloud of witnesses who have trusted in the power of God to deliver. At the end of this is Jesus, the “author and finisher” of faith. Jesus did not escape his enemies. He did not emerge from the furnace unscathed. He remained in it and “endured the cross” in order to deliver us. Hays answers the question, “Who is the god who will deliver?” with “the God who enters the furnace with us.” Hays then brings in a text from Isaiah to affirm this response.

I enjoy Hay’s discussion about audience context and his attempt at early Christian exegesis of the OT deliverance stories. Equally helpful is his conversation about the need for resistance in today’s church. Perhaps most interesting is his discussion of how his involvement in the Scripture Project led him to focus on the fourth man in the sermon. Both this sermon and The Scripture Project emphasize God’s salvation. Both presume Old and New Testament as the ongoing story of God’s intervention. Both address the saving presence of God in a way that prefigures what is later claimed about Jesus. Both have confidence in God as the author of the entire drama. I applaud his effort to preach in a way that places Jesus in the role of the saving God of history.

Advice for a Superficial Preacher

John Wesley writing to John Trembath (August 17, 1760), a young minister who was a poor preacher, arguing that better reading is not a sufficient condition for better preaching, but it is a necessary one.

What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is lack of reading.

I scarce ever knew a preacher who read so little.

And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it.

Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought.

Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer.

You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this.

You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian.

Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercise. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant.

Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily.

It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.

Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow.

Do not starve yourself any longer.

Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether.

Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you, and in particular yours.

—”Letter to a Friend,” The Works of the Rev. John Wesley (London, 1813), 49.

Most Effective Preachers

Baylor Seminary’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary surveyed almost 180 sermon experts belonging to the Evangelical Homiletics Society and the Academy of Homiletics. And the results are in! According to the Spring 2018 national survey the most effective preachers in the English speaking world are;

1 – Dr. Alistair Begg, senior pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

2 – Dr. Tony Evans, founding pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas.

3 – Dr. Joel C. Gregory, George W. Truett Endowed Chair in Preaching and Evangelism at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

4 – Dr. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York.

5 – Dr. Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Director of the Early Career Pastoral Leadership Program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia.

6 – Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois.

7 – Dr. John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

8 – Dr. Haddon Robinson, previously Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

9 – Pastor Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church.

10 – Dr. Charles Swindoll, senior pastor at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas.

11 – Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, professor, author, and theologian.

12 – Dr. Ralph Douglas West, founder and senior pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston, Texas.

Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light: a Sermon on Acts 9.1-18

I was 14 years old, living in upstate NY, trying to navigate a world of many questions and few answers. The fact is, teen boys don’t always have the right answers. But to their credit, they are at least looking. And I was trying to connect the world of eighth grade with the world I was reading about in the Bible. It wasn’t easy and I was not always right. But I do remember when I first heard on the radio the song “Blinded By the Light.” It was catchy and I was certain it was about Saul on the road to Damascus.

Bruce Springsteen wrote this song and I recognize now that he probably didn’t have Acts 9 in mind when he wrote that lyric but I still think about Saul whenever I hear it. The song begins “Madmen, Drummers, Bummers…” and Acts 9 comes with a madman (Saul) and bummers (persecution and murderous threats). Perhaps Ananias was a drummer (playing with the Straight Street Band).

Acts 9 starts out with Saul “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He is on his way to Damascus to find those who belong to “the Way” in order to bring them back as prisoners.

This is the same Saul who was there at the stoning of Stephen. We do not know if he was an instigator or a collaborator but we do know he was in agreement with what happened that day. Because afterward he becomes violent and begins breathing “murderous threats.” That happens in v.1. It is important to highlight that just 18 verses later he “was baptized.” What happened? Acts 9 says he met someone on the road. And we are told that it was Jesus.

Acts is full of surprises. Nearly every chapter seems to present a surprise of some sort. But who saw this coming? Just when we were ready to hear more about Philip running around in the desert welcoming unlikely and unexpected people into the kingdom, here comes Saul with his murderous threats. We are not prepared for the one who is hunting disciples to be turned so quickly or so convincingly.

In the bigger picture we can see this episode as the latest in a series of attempts to stop the gospel of Jesus. Can a cross or even death stop the gospel? Can the fact that listeners do not share a language with the speaker stop the gospel? Can prison or beatings stop the gospel? Can corruption in the church? Can unworthy people? Can continental boundaries? Can the gospel be stopped by one willing to use violence and murderous threats? There is something about this gospel that propels it through most any barrier – there is something about meeting Jesus.

Acts is full of episodes where people meet Jesus. It is worth pointing out that only once, right here in chapter 9, is someone converted by being blinded by the light. It is helpful to know that Jesus does not meet everyone on the same street. Jesus does not work on every one of us in the same way. You are not less spiritual because you were not blinded while traveling the road to Damascus. We want to be clear that God may perform the same work in each of us but God is under no obligation to do it in the same way twice.

Do not measure your kingdom value by your conversion experience. Do not be manipulated into thinking that those who can share with pinpoint accuracy when and where conversion occurred are more spiritual than you. Do not believe that a television preacher who saw a 60 foot Jesus is better at following Jesus than you are. Rejoice that God is calling you. Rejoice that you have met Jesus. Rejoice that God is so interested in you that He has made plans for you.

Sometimes we read a text like this and want to use it as a bully stick. Read it to someone who is speaking against Jesus and say “maybe this will teach you for messing with Jesus… punk.” But Ananias does not show up and say to Saul “don’t mess with Jesus, next time could be worse.”

Other times we might read a text like this and wish our experience was similar. Such an experience might give us validation. A stronger incentive to do something for God. We would know without a doubt that God does have a plan for us. If all conversions were like this, it would be easier to tell who has been converted.

While it is fact that Acts loves to talk about conversion, it does not share many conversion stories that look alike… and there is certainly nothing else like this.

Here is what we know. The way of God will never include opposing Jesus. The ways of God will never include murderous threats. The ways of God may include strange and miraculous ways, like blinding the sighted or opening eye of the blind. The ways of God may include locating the least likely candidate, even the greatest opponent, and turn them toward Jesus.

Let us picture conversion for what it is. It is heading in one direction and then running into Jesus. It is like a crash in the intersection. It is a change of direction. Conversion suggests we are no longer heading the same way we once were. There are new plans. Things that once seemed so urgent are no longer urgent, and new things suddenly become priority.

It is possible you are hiding your true direction and desires from others. But you are not hiding from God. And God has a specific direction for you. The plan is no different than it was for a man who once breathed murderous threats and then one day was blinded by a light – God’s plan for you is to follow Jesus.

Craig Barnes and the Three Great Anxieties

Craig Barnes claims Jesus identified with the human anxious condition. That was the point of his lecture “Preaching in the Age of Anxiety.” He admits to being in the subtext, but states that is where preachers belong. Barnes wants us to look at Matthew 4 and what he calls the three great anxieties but he realizes that in order to get there we must travel through chapter three.

Lurking in chapter three is John the Baptist. Barnes wants to like John but feels like John is another judgmental preacher. A preacher who preaches what Barnes calls the “bad dog” sermon. And he preaches it over and over. We are there also. We are on the shores of the Jordan when John looks at the crowds and says “bad dog” then points to Jesus and says “this is who I’ve warned you about.” Yet, Jesus does not come with a winnowing fork and he does not call for fire from heaven. Instead, he applies for baptism. Jesus identifies with the human condition and God is pleased. We know God is pleased because of the announcement “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Onto chapter four where Barnes reframes the three temptations as the “three great anxieties.” Here Jesus identifies with the human condition, which is the human anxious condition. First, we are all hungry for all sorts of things. We are wired for hunger and created to desire. We will move all sorts of furniture trying to find our own fulfillment. We will blame others for our lack of fulfillment. Our hunger makes us anxious because we doubt what Jesus knows to be true, “we are the beloved of God.”

In fact, Barnes says, all our anxieties are because we doubt we are loved. That is why it is important for Jesus to take the incarnational route, he identifies with our anxieties. We would all like some level of certainty. Yet, faith does not promise certainty. But even when we cannot claim certainty, we can proclaim we are the beloved of God. Fear does not leave by being certain, but by being loved.

Anxiety is created by the desire to be necessary. But being necessary is a sure way to rob oneself of being loved. Someone who is necessary becomes a utility, a tool, a necessary item. You are too important to be necessary. Being necessary will only cause anxiety. Barnes goes on, do not settle for necessary. The current climate is already full of this – instead, recognize this, you are cherished by God.